Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Death and the King's Horseman Summary

Death and the King's Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka in which Elesin postpones his ceremonially dictated death.

  • Elesin, the recently deceased king's horseman, is meant to kill himself in order to follow his monarch into the afterlife.
  • Elesin postpones his death by requesting a night of pleasure with a beautiful woman, and later by allowing the white district officer to imprison him to prevent his suicide.
  • Elesin's son, Olunde, returns to the village and, shamed by his father's actions, kills himself in hopes of fulfilling his father's duty.
  • Upon seeing his son's body, Elesin commits suicide out of shame and guilt.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Based on actual events, "Death and the King's Horsemen" delves into the collision of cultural values, the impact of colonialism, and the intricate interplay between tradition and modernity. Set in Nigeria during the mid-1940s, the play is centered around the Yoruba, in which the king's horseman is tasked with accompanying the deceased ruler into the afterlife. However, the involvement of colonial authorities disrupts this sacred tradition, leading to a clash of beliefs and consequences that reverberate throughout the community.

At its core, the play explores the tension between Western imperialism and indigenous West African practices. With their differing ideologies and priorities, the British colonialists expose the deeply rooted conflicts between traditional Yoruba rituals and the values imposed by the colonizers. The conflict between these two worldviews is personified in the characters of Simon Pilkings, the British district officer, and Elesin Oba, the king's horseman.

Elesin appears committed to his duty. He commands the respect of his community, which sings his praises. Before the appointed hour of his death, however, Elesin decides to take a new bride. He hopes that this will allow him to have another child and create a lasting link to the world of the living. 

After the marriage is consummated, but before he can take his own life, Elesin's plan is disrupted by Pilkings, who has him arrested. Elesin is deeply ashamed of his failure. To make matters even more tragic, Elesin's estranged son, Olunde, takes his father's place in the ritual to complete this critical rite.

In the author's note, Soyinka rejects the designation of his play as a mere "clash of cultures." Not only does the author find this overly reductive, but it also takes attention away from what he writes about his true intentions: to provide an elegy for the victims of the story and to comment on the transition that links life and death.

Elesin, the central character, embodies this transition deeply personally. As the king's horseman, he carries the weight of tradition and the expectation of fulfilling his sacred duty. However, as the play unfolds, it becomes evident that Elesin is also grappling with his impending death and the legacy he wants to leave behind. Unable to completely cut ties with the world of the living, he is deeply concerned with how he will be remembered.

Memory is the Master of Death, the chink

In his armor of conceit (Scene 1)

This internal balancing act mirrors the broader theme of life's inevitable journey toward its end, a transition that all individuals must face.

The play masterfully weaves the personal and universal together, using Elesin's inner struggle as a microcosm of the larger human experience. It highlights the complexity of human desires, responsibilities, and the yearning for meaning in the face of mortality. 

Elesin's journey becomes a representation of the timeless quest for understanding the nature of existence and a meditation on the interplay between individual desires and cultural obligations. For Elesin and his community, it is important that a person not outlive their purpose.

Life has an end. A life that will outlive

Fame and friendship begs another name.

What elder takes his tongue to his plate,

Licks it clean of every crumb? He will encounter

Silence when he calls on children to fulfill 

The smallest errand! Life is honour.

It ends when honour ends. (Scene 1)

Furthermore, this play explores the intricate layers of identity and loyalty. It serves as a reminder that preserving cultural practices is more than a matter of nostalgia; it's a means of retaining communal bonds, histories, and spiritual connections that give a society its coherence and...

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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uniqueness. This story underscores the consequences of cultural disruption, emphasizing the need for harmony between tradition and change to sustain a society's vitality.

As such, "Death and the King's Horsemen" vividly depicts the complexities faced by postcolonial societies and individuals within them. It contemplates the dynamics between colonizers and the colonized, historical practices and contemporary viewpoints, and individual desires and communal responsibilities. 

By examining these universal themes within the context of a specific cultural framework, the play goes beyond its setting to offer insights into the broader human experience of navigating change. Furthermore, the play explores the human psyche and its relationship with mortality. It invites the audience to consider the universal themes of transition, mortality, and the complex interweaving of individual lives with cultural traditions.


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